Reeling Hawkeyes await rematch

Iowa has lost five of six games since beating Minnesota at Williams Arena.

Charlie Armitz

Parity in the Big Ten has experienced a reality check in the last couple of weeks.

Iowa âÄî the GophersâÄô opponent Wednesday âÄî has lost five of its past six games after a pair of unlikely wins at Wisconsin on Dec. 31 and at Minnesota on Jan. 4.

Minnesota is 4-1 in its past five games, but the last two âÄî a 68-52 loss at then-No. 10 Michigan State and a 77-72 overtime win against Illinois âÄî have been a struggle.

As a whole, the Big TenâÄôs middle-of-the-pack teams have come down to earth, while top dogs Ohio State and Michigan State have jumped atop the conference standings.

As the chips fall into place, the main question surrounding both Iowa (3-6) and Minnesota (4-5) is whether postseason play is in the cards.

The GophersâÄô NCAA tournament hopes likely rest on their performance against top-tier conference foes, but a pair of losses to Iowa could nullify its two quality wins to date.

MinnesotaâÄôs 64-62 home loss to Iowa a month ago was easily its worst offensive game of the season. A 31-21 first-half lead turned into an 8-point second-half deficit when the HawkeyesâÄô zone defense stifled the GophersâÄô attack.

âÄúWe didnâÄôt shoot the ball very well that game,âÄù head coach Tubby Smith said. âÄúWe had trouble against their zone.âÄù

Opposing teams havenâÄôt shown Minnesota a lot of zone since then, but perhaps that is because Minnesota has shown it can handle it.

âÄúI think after [the Iowa] game, the next two teams we played against went zone on us, and we did a good job breaking that zone,âÄù junior Rodney Williams said. âÄúThatâÄôs what we practiced a lot [Monday], and IâÄôm sure weâÄôll do the same thing [Tuesday], so weâÄôll be ready for it.âÄù

A key factor in breaking zone defenses is beating defenders off the dribble, and with a new backcourt of Joe Coleman and Julian Welch leading the way, the Gophers have been able to do just that.

Minnesota attempted just 10 free throws against Iowa, but since Coleman entered the starting lineup Jan. 8, it has averaged 24 free throw attempts per game. Coleman alone has averaged 8.5 trips to the line.

Rebounding, however, has been a concern throughout the GophersâÄô Big Ten slate.

Minnesota has allowed 12 offensive rebounds per game in Big Ten play, including 17 against Illinois.

Although the Gophers out-rebounded Iowa 34-33 in the teamsâÄô first meeting, they allowed 12 offensive rebounds, which led to 14 second-chance points.

âÄú[Iowa] beat us up pretty good on the offensive boards,âÄù Smith said. âÄúThey were pretty physical, and thatâÄôs been our concern; weâÄôve been working hard to try to get better in that area.âÄù

Minnesota is one of the taller teams in the Big Ten, but with Trevor Mbakwe sidelined for the season, it has lacked consistent physical play inside.

In the loss to Michigan State, the Spartans out-rebounded the Gophers 32-25 and held a 38-20 edge in points in the paint.

Williams (6-foot-7) and Ralph Sampson III (6-foot-11) have been especially inconsistent on the glass. But they may be needed more than ever Wednesday when the Gophers could play without freshman center Elliott Eliason (turned ankle) and junior forward Andre Ingram (sore hip).

âÄúThey need to play better, and they know that,âÄù Smith said of the trio of Williams, Sampson and Welch. âÄúBut if they donâÄôt, thatâÄôs where everyone else comes in.âÄù

While the starting five has carried most of the load this season, the GophersâÄô bench gave it a boost in the win against Illinois.

Led by sophomore Chip ArmelinâÄôs 14 points and freshman Andre HollinsâÄô 12, the Gophers outscored the Illini 39-9 in bench points.

Sophomore Austin Hollins, who scored 14 points and converted a game-tying 3-point play at the end of regulation, said MinnesotaâÄôs bench production elevated his own play.

âÄúI think I might have sparked [the win] a little bit, but they brought the energy, and that helped me out as well,âÄù Austin Hollins said. âÄúThe guys came off the bench, they played great, and they took it into overtime.âÄù